Pedagogy of the Possessed: Teaching and Learning in 'Buffy'

Michael Curtis Nelson

The implied pedagogical theories undergirding both Buffy and Giles's guidance of her evince a particularly American pragmatic understanding of the learning process.

For the last ten years audiences have watched young wizards learn to negotiate the supernatural in a rigid, hierarchical academy for the magically gifted. Joss Whedon’s series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, set first in a California public high school, later in a university—offers a very different view of instruction in the dark arts, one that not only comports with Americans’ suspicion of formal education and preference for pragmatic, on-the-job instruction but also reflects its creator’s pessimistic view of the perfectibility of culture.

Joss Whedon has structured Buffy as an amalgam of an American television staple, the high-school comedy-drama, and the traditional horror story, whose frequent reliance on a research component makes it a good complement to the school setting. Elevating a character type usually relegated to supporting cast status, the juvenile delinquent, Whedon makes his heroine an average pupil at odds with school administration, adept only at an alternative, secret curriculum that the series valorizes over traditional classroom instruction.

Aside from fleeting moments of insight in the classroom, Buffy’s substantive education takes place under the tutelage of Watcher and mentor Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head). Working undercover as the school librarian, Giles instructs Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) in the dark lore she must master in order to dispatch the creatures she’s been called to slay. Buffy’s course of study plays like a dream curriculum founded in principles of active learning. Providing access to primary documents (thanks to Giles, Sunnydale High has an impressive collection of occult texts) and taking his charge into the field for hands-on instruction, Giles turns Buffy’s education into a literal internship from hell.

Yet Buffy is hardly an endorsement of experiential education, a favorite American pedagogical approach with an emphasis on individual growth and societal change, whose roots go back to psychologist and educational reformer John Dewey. Neither is it a call to revolution, like Brazilian Paulo Freire’s influential and still controversial treatise on the transformative potential of schooling, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Instead Buffy mocks earnest, issues-of-the-day writing common in shows from Room 222 to Beverly Hills, 90210 to Joan of Arcadia by grafting teen narratives about drug abuse, domestic violence, or sexual orientation onto horror plots, a practice that simultaneously reinvigorates such themes while disavowing the belief in progressive educational goals that usually accompany them.

Just as Sunnydale’s Hellmouth attracts an impressive array of supernatural creatures—mummies, shape shifters, and soul-sucking demons, in addition to vampires—so the local high school employs a lengthy parade of pedagogues, whose rapid turnover is insured by the predations of the former group. At Sunnydale High, teachers, principals, and advisors have the shelf lives of Spinal Tap drummers, and their evanescent tenures enable writers to represent (and parody) a wide range of teaching styles and instructional approaches.

Principal Flutie, in charge of Sunnydale High when the series begins, subscribes to the permissive, self-esteem approach to educating teens, welcoming Buffy and giving her a clean slate, despite her spotty record at her old school in L.A. After he proves too indecisive to lead a school built on the portal to hell (in conference with Buffy he tears up her record, then, after glimpsing what it contains, anxiously tapes it back together as they talk), the hapless Flutie is torn apart by students possessed by hyena spirits. Principal Snyder (Armin Shimerman), Flutie’s law-and-order successor, more interested in integrating “antisocial types” like Buffy into the school, declares that “Sunnydale has touched and felt for the last time.”

Good teaching manages to manifest itself despite Snyder’s harsh tactics. Season One’s “Teacher’s Pet” features a science teacher who sees past Buffy’s reputation, but insists on discipline. Mr. Gregory tells her that she “has a first-class mind,” and encourages her to apply herself. She does, and for once, carries out the pre-slaying homework—usually tackled by Giles and Willow (Alyson Hannigan)—that saves the day. Before he can establish a lasting connection with Buffy, however, Mr. Gregory loses his head to a she-mantis impersonating a Sunnydale teacher and seducing, then feeding on male virgins.

Computer instructor Ms. Jenny Calendar (Robia LaMorte), self-described “techno-pagan,” wins over the Scooby Gang (Buffy, Willow, and Xander [Nicholas Brendon]) with her frankness and open classroom in Season Two. Angel (David Boreanaz) kills her later the same season when he temporarily loses his soul. Guidance counselor Mr. Platt also reaches Buffy, in Season Three, albeit briefly. “The hope I bring you is, demons can be fought; people can change,” he confides, shortly before his death at the hands of a student dabbling in a Jekyll-Hyde potion...

Dear reader:

Joss Whedon’s importance in contemporary pop culture can hardly be overstated, but there has never been a book providing a comprehensive survey and analysis of his career as a whole -- until now. Published to coincide with Whedon’s blockbuster movie The Avengers, Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters (May 2012) covers every aspect of his work, through insightful essays and in-depth interviews with key figures in the ‘Whedonverse’. This article, along with previously unpublished material, can be read in its entirety in this book.

Place your order for Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters, published with Titan Books, here.

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